90 percent AFUE gas condensing furnace
90 percent AFUE gas condensing furnace

High-efficiency gas furnace

When it comes to fuel efficiency, experts say nothing beats a gas condensing furnace, which has annual fuel-utilization efficiency (AFUE) of at least 90 percent. Compared with an 80 percent AFUE furnace, a condensing furnace might save you $8 or so for every $100 you spend on heating. Whether this savings is enough to offset the extra up-front cost will depend on factors such as climate, utility rates and the energy efficiency of your home. However, experts say that if you live in an area with harsh winters, such as the Northeast or the Midwest, a condensing furnace will probably pay for itself over time. High-efficiency gas furnaces with an AFUE of 95 percent or more can qualify for a tax credit of up to $150. State governments and utility companies may offer additional rebates.
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*Est. installed cost $3,000 and up Estimated Price
80 percent AFUE gas furnace
80 percent AFUE gas furnace

Budget gas furnace

If you live in a milder climate, experts say you should consider a less efficient (and less expensive) 80 percent AFUE furnace. Although condensing furnaces, which range from 90 to 97 percent AFUE, waste much less heat, experts say an 80 percent AFUE gas furnace is likely to be considerably more efficient than the unit you're replacing. You can save about $1,000 with an 80 percent furnace (possibly more, depending on installation costs), but your monthly energy costs will be higher than with a high-efficiency furnace. The break-even period will depend on your gas rates and how they change over time.
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*Est. installed cost $2,000 and up Estimated Price
90 percent AFUE oil furnace
90 percent AFUE oil furnace

Oil furnace

Although gas furnaces are the most common type, a significant number of homes have oil furnaces, especially in the Northeast, where access to natural gas may be limited. Oil-burning furnaces are less efficient on average than gas furnaces, but they can have AFUEs as high as 95 percent. An oil furnace with an AFUE of 95 percent . As with gas furnaces, an efficient oil furnace will cost more to install but will use less fuel over time. One factor that is different with oil furnaces is CO2 emissions. For example, upgrading from a 56 percent AFUE furnace to a 90 percent AFUE furnace will reduce CO2 emissions by 2.5 tons per year with oil heat, but only 1.5 tons with gas heat. This makes an energy-efficient oil furnace a good choice for those who have oil heat and are concerned about pollution.
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*Est. installed cost $2,000 and up Estimated Price
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Type of furnace is more important than brand

No publications conduct comparative reviews of furnaces or comprehensively rate an individual model, but it's easy to see why. A tester would have to install furnaces in identical homes to compare them. How well a furnace functions depends on the installation of the whole system, including ductwork and venting. Factors such as climate, home size, insulation, window condition and usage will also affect performance. Even evaluating the long-term reliability of a particular model is problematic because furnaces are made to last 15 to 20 years, and technology can change a lot over such a long period. Comparing the repair records of different brands is possible, but the editors of ConsumerReports.org say they "found no statistically meaningful differences in percent of models ever repaired for the leading brands of furnaces" in their research.

So, if testing specific furnace models is very difficult, how should you choose a furnace? Experts generally say that the best way is to choose a reliable contractor and let that person's expertise guide you. A skilled heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor will evaluate your home's energy needs and help you choose a furnace that is the right size and efficiency for you, based on a number of factors. Sources such as ConsumerReports.org, EnergySavers.gov, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and home-improvement expert Danny Lipford offer useful advice on choosing and working with a furnace contractor. One commonly cited tip is to hire a certified installer. Two associations that certify furnace and boiler installers are North American Technician Excellence (NATE) and HVAC Excellence. Sources most often recommend using a NATE-certified installer.

Although it is not possible to evaluate everything about a particular furnace, you can look for particular features that are important to you. Perhaps the most important feature of a furnace is its overall energy efficiency. The percentage of fuel a furnace converts to usable heat is its annual fuel-utilization efficiency, or AFUE. All new furnaces made and sold in the United States must have an AFUE of at least 78 percent, and nearly all furnaces perform at 80 percent AFUE or better. However, high-efficiency furnaces can achieve an AFUE as high as 97 percent, meaning that only 3 percent of the heat extracted from fuel is lost through exhaust. Sources such as the ACEEE and EnergySavers.gov can help you estimate how much money you could potentially save on your annual heating bills by installing a more efficient furnace.

Replacing an ailing or old furnace can also get you a tax credit. Additional tax credits and other rebates may be available from your state government or from your utility company.

With few exceptions, furnaces and installation are sold as package deals. Buying your furnace directly from the manufacturer offers potential savings, because many HVAC contractors include a substantial markup in the prices of the furnaces they sell. However, this approach poses problems, as well. The first problem is figuring out what size furnace you need, which involves a complicated formula known as a load calculation. You will either need to hire a contractor to perform the load calculation or buy software to help you do it yourself. A second problem is that some HVAC manufacturers will void the warranty on any furnace that is purchased outside of the contractor relationship. However, most manufacturers will honor the warranty as long as the furnace is bought through a licensed distributor and installed by a licensed HVAC contractor. This leads to the third problem: finding a contractor willing to install the equipment you have purchased, as some contractors are not willing to install furnaces that they haven't sold themselves.

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